Season 12 - The conclusion of Bright Futures

Episode 3 - Are these means of transport actually deployable?

We all have a bit of Da Vinci in us. As children, a creative spirit helped us dream, play and invent. Despite the genius of all our playthings, they were never developed by manufacturers. No human catapults, or spaceships to go to school. You know why? It’s always for the same reasons (or almost): a lack of commercial need, a danger/technical impossibility hidden behind a good idea, or the financial and logistical impossibility of deploying such a product. As crazy as it may seem, it’s generally the same with passenger transport. For the penultimate episode of Bright Futures, we review the modes of tomorrow from this standpoint.

The completely delusional

If the spaceships of our childhood dreams aren't a credible transportation solution, why would flying cars be? After all, they’re just really bad flying machines. As Bernard Jullien, lecturer in economics at the University of Bordeaux and specialist in the automobile industry, explained to us in season 1, they would involve the construction of a socially and economically unsustainable infrastructure. Because even if flying cars today are electric drones, they would at least need landing strips in the middle of the city. Given the price of real estate and the level of social tension in large urban centres, it’s very unlikely that the whims of the rich will be deployed on a large scale.

It’s the same conundrum for the Very High Speed train. First of all, why? Why create a train for which you’d need to raze millions of square kilometres of nature - when it’s meant to be the more sustainable practice? Why propel a train at 1000 kilometres per hour when we know that most countries would be devastated by the work necessary to make the route? Plus you’d still need to raise the funds for this. Oh yes, and to find the technology. Because it’s far from ready and less than reliable.

Finally, there’s teleportation, which we aren’t even sure is real and achievable for something as complex as a human being. In short, it's cool in the movies, but don't get your hopes up for it.

The “no but tech will mature quite soon:”

Second major category: technologies which could be deployed one day. Fans defend them with only empty promises: “Researchers are working on it as we speak”, “It's a matter only a matter of time, we're sorting out the final details”, or even “This technology will make our children forget what we were doing before it arrived on the market”. The most symbolic of these technologies is undeniably the hydrogen plane, the technology for which is anything but ready. And it's not us saying that, it's Emmanuel Bensadoun, the head of the Expertise/Studies division of France Hydrogène, a professional association bringing together more than 460 players in the sector. In season 3, he reminded us that the engines aren’t ready, being as dangerous as they are. Even more complex, hydrogen transport methods would require very heavy logistical adaptations. In short, planes won’t be flying like this tomorrow, with the exception of a few prototypes.

The autonomous car – in its most autonomous form – faces quite identical problems. For millions of cars to drive on their own at the same time, we’d have to re-equip all cities and roads concerned with receivers, transmitters and other technologies that are both expensive and energy-consuming. Not to mention the need to sort out the trolley dilemma before putting them on the roads. So it feels pretty far off.

Finally, there’s the solar plane, for which there is no debate. It’s not possible to carry the slightest load in addition to its pilot. So we can deploy thousands of them, but they will be of no use until someone has made the technology more efficient in this regard. In short, it’s far from being the future. Miles in fact.

The already deployed, but hard to scale:

There’s a third, somewhat bastardised category: transport technologies, that are sometimes adopted on a small scale, but are difficult to deploy at a country, or continental level. First of all, there’s the hydrogen train which, as we saw in season seven, has already been partially abandoned by the LNGV, the railway company of Lower Saxony, which was testing it. However it was considered too expensive... And then there’s the problem of deploying technology with fuel that’s only 5% green.

The biogas train according to Maria Lee, logistics and transport expert at Sia Partners, is technologically mature. Better yet, it’s possible to renovate diesel trains to run them with this technology. Only problem is, you need biogas, and lots of it. Which is feasible provided that hundreds of production units are deployed in the regions concerned. Come on, we believe it a little.

Finally, there’s the SAF aircraft, with sustainable aircraft fuel. If it appears in this category, it’s only because there’s already SAF in many aircraft engines. But so little. In 2022, these fuels represented only 0.15% of global kerosene demand. Replacement on a global scale is therefore not happening tomorrow.

The really solid, reliable ones:

We conclude with the two champions. The electric car on the one hand, and the night train on the other. The first is already conquering the world and isn’t going to stop there. The technology continues to improve, which is boosting the autonomy and reducing recharging time. Better yet, as the brilliant Bernard Jullien explained, the charging point network will soon match the levels of petrol stations since the Governments established its hegemony. As for the night train, it's still there and always has been. Efficient, reliable, ecological and requiring no new infrastructure or crazy expenditure. It simply has to be relevant to the times, which is what we want to do at Midnight Trains.

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